“Do you speak Spanish?”
I dread it when I tell someone my parents are from South America, I dread it because I know the question that’s about to follow, it’s always the same, “so do you speak Spanish?”.
Do I speak Spanish? Yes, but also no. It’s so difficult to describe my situation because I can’t really claim I’m bi-lingual. I mean, do I understand Spanish? Yes. Can I speak Spanish? Kind of. I recently discovered the formal term for what I experience with Spanish (shout out to Wikipedia), I am what they call a passive speaker. Essentially what that means is, Spanish is not my dominant language. I have a native understanding of the language as my family have been speaking Spanish to me since birth but as I like to eloquently put it, my brain does not connect with my mouth when it comes to speaking it. I’m not sure if it’s the lack of confidence or the lack of practice (I think it’s both) but it’s just easier for me to understand than it is to speak. Which makes sense because my mum has always told me that before I started primary school, I spoke Spanish. However, being the only Spanish speaker in primary school meant that as I got older, English slowly invaded my entire vocabulary and became my dominant language as I never needed to speak Spanish to communicate with peers.
Being someone who is so proudly Latina and who also can’t properly speak Spanish brings on massive feelings of embarrassment and disappointment. I’ve been put into so many situation where someone will start a conversation in Spanish with me and a huge wave of paralysis will come over me because I’m expected to respond in Spanish. I completely freeze up and my automatic response is to converse in English. I’ve seen that puzzled look on people s faces far too many times, that “why isn’t she replying in Spanish but understands me” expression (think Nick Young question mark face meme).
The older I get, the more I’m beginning to accept that it is okay that I’m not fluent in Spanish. I mean, so what if I have an Australian accent when I speak?, does it really matter that fluent Spanish speakers might correct me when I speak the language?. I had this immense epiphany while driving with my grandfather who was visiting from Chile the other week. He said to me “Aimee, if I can understand you when you speak Spanish, you’re speaking Spanish. I know that I make mistakes when I speak English but you understand me, so I’m speaking English”. My head literally exploded after he said this to me. Why couldn’t I have figured this out years ago? He came to Australia with bare minimum English and learnt from practicing, he wasn’t fluent overnight. For so long I’ve been so hard on myself for not being fluent and instead of practicing my Spanish, I suppressed it. Since that conversation with my grandfather a lot changed for me. For one, I’m actively speaking more Spanish than I have in years because I’m learning to let go of those expectations I once held for myself.
Understanding that it’s okay that I’m not fluent in a language that most people expect me to be, is a really hard process. After all, there is a huge expectation that someone who belongs to my ethnic background and looks like me, should be able to speak Spanish. I’m 26 and am only just starting to realise that it’s okay to make mistakes or have an accent. You are entitled to have pride in your cultural heritage, even if you’re not actively speaking it’s mother tongue. I mean, when it really comes down to it Spanish is technically not Latin America’s Indigenous language anyway. Spanish only exists in Latin America due to colonisation.
My point is, you should not have to define the ability to speak a language as the give all or tell all that you belong to a specific ethnic background. Australia is so incredibly multicultural and this struggle with not being 100% bi-lingual or bilingual at all is not a strictly Latinx experience. This is an ongoing issue for so many first, second or third generation Australian’s, so please remember not to be too hard on yourself.
Written by Aimee Flores